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Autonomy (Ancient Greek: αυτονόμος autonomos, Modern Greek: αυτονομία autonomia, from auto "self" + nomos, "law": one who gives oneself his/her own law) is a concept found in moral, political, and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts, it refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral respectibility for one's actions. One of the best known philosophical theories of autonomy was developed by Kant. In medicine, respect for the autonomy of patients is an important goal, though it can conflict with a competing ethical principle, namely beneficence. Politically, it is also used to refer to the self-governing of a people.



In politics, autonomy refers to one's own self-governance. In the past few decades, a large movement of autonomism has emerged in the form of social democracy, anarchism, and the anarcho-capitalist movement.


The word autonomy has several usages in philosophical contexts. In ethics, autonomy refers to a person's capacity for self-determination in the context of moral choices. Kant argued that autonomy is demonstrated by a person who decides on a course of action out of respect for moral duty. That is, an autonomous person acts morally solely for the sake of doing "good", independently of other incentives. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant applied this concept to create a definition of personhood. He suggested that such compliance with moral law creates the essence of human dignity. In metaphysical philosophy, the concept of autonomy is referenced in discussions about free will, fatalism, determinism, and agency.


In a medical context, respect for a patient's autonomy is considered a fundamental ethical principle. This belief is the central premise of the concept of informed consent. This idea, while considered essential to today's practice of medicine, was developed in the last 50 years. According to Beauchamp and Childress (in Principles of Biomedical Ethics), the Nuremberg trials detailed accounts of horrifyingly exploitative medical "experiments." These incidences prompted calls for safeguards in medical research. In the 1940s, the phrase "informed consent" appeared but didn't become widely used until the 1970s. Initially, discussions about informed consent focused almost exclusively on research subjects, but eventually has come to apply to the conventional physician-patient relationship as well. The seven elements of informed consent (as defined by Beauchamp) include threshold elements (Competence and Voluntariness), information elements (Disclosure, Recommendation, and Understanding) and consent elements (Decision and Authorization.).

Restrictions on autonomy

Autonomy can be, and usually is to one extent or another, waived to another authority, such as by agreeing to follow governing laws. The actions available to an autonomous unit can be restricted by a more powerful authority, such as when a cattleman sets a fence around his herd, or a court sentences a criminal to prison. The decisions of an autonomous unit can be coerced, and its actions forced. Autonomy can be restricted through the aspect of the ability to act, as in the case of a newborn or through the aspect of the ability to decide as in the case of a person in a coma.

Space systems

Autonomy is an increasing feature of space systems with two objectives

  • Mandatory for new functions:
e.g. several spacecrafts in formation flight adjust their relative positions so that interferometric measurements with wide basis can be performed
  • Cost reduction:
e.g. failure detection and recovery by spacecraft system without ground station involvement reduces Up-/Downlink usage and reduces operational costs on ground.

Various uses

  • In computing, an autonomous peripheral is one that can be used with the computer turned off
  • Within self-determination theory in psychology, autonomy refers to 'autonomy support versus control', "hypothesizing that autonomy-supportive social contexts tend to facilitate self-determined motivation, healthy development, and optimal functioning."
  • In mathematical analysis, an autonomous ordinary differential equation is time-independent.
  • In linguistics, an autonomous language is one which is independent of other languages, for example has a standard, grammar books, dictionaries, literature etc.
  • In robotics "autonomy means independence of control. This characterization implies that autonomy is a property of the relation between two agents, in the case of robotics, of the relations between the designer and the autonomous robot. Self-sufficiency, situatedness, learning or development, and evolution increase an agent’s degree of autonomy.", according to Rolf Pfeifer.
  • In economics, autonomous consumption is consumption expenditure when income levels are zero, making spending autonomous to income.

See also



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




From Ancient Greek αὐτονομία (autonomia) from αὐτόνομος (autonomos) from αὐτός (autos), self) + νόμος (nomos), law). See auto- (self) and -nomy (a system of rules or laws about a particular field).



Wikipedia has an article on:




autonomy (plural autonomies)

  1. Self-government
  2. (philosophy) The capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision.
  3. (mechanics) The capacity of a system to make a decision about its actions without the involvement of another system or operator.



Derived terms


Simple English

The English Wiktionary has dictionary definitions (meanings of a word) for:

Autonomy[1] means being able to rule without having to obey some other higher authority. Autonomy is something that philosophers often talk about. The idea occurs in moral, political, and bioethical philosophy. It means that someone is able to make a sensible decision without being forced to do so by someone else. They are able to make a "free" decision.

In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used when discussing whether someone has a moral responsibility for what he does. One of best known philosophical theories of autonomy was developed by Kant. In medicine, doctors have to respect the autonomy of the patient, i.e. the patient has been given good information about their illness, they should be able to decide whether they want treatment. The doctor cannot force it on them.

In politics, autonomy means that people can govern themselves instead of being ruled by someone else. This can also be a means of a new transportation in the 20th century.


  1. Greek: Auto-Nomos - nomos meaning "law": one who gives oneself his own law


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